FAIRMONT - Antiquated dentistry hardware decorates the lobby at Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab, the equipment flooding an imaginative mind with nightmarish images - and quickly serving as a reminder of the industry's evolution.
The company's success story gives a glimpse into the history of the industry and the lives of the owners, Paul and Karen Zoch.
"This office is bigger than my first lab," said Paul, walking by his wife's office at Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab in Fairmont.
Paul Zoch, owner of Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab, points to a computerized pneumatic press. Photo by Chip Pearson
A technician at Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab works on a piece. Photo by Chip Pearson
After graduating from high school, he didn't know what he wanted to do. He took a skills assessment test that suggested a number of careers to make use of his finger dexterity and comprehension for mechanics. Dental lab technician was something that stood out to him.
A family friend, who was a dentist, agreed Paul would make a good tech. He opened his first lab in 1980. That was before he and Karen got married, before she "straightened him out," in Paul's words.
He started working out of his home in Jackson, and then moved into an office in downtown Jackson. In '83, he and Karen were married, she joined the lab, and "that's when this took off," Paul said.
They moved to Fairmont in '85 and hired their first employee a year later. Now, located off South State Street in Fairmont, they have 29 employees, including seasonal help.
"I never thought we'd be to where we're at today," Paul said. "... This is the best team we've ever had."
Paul isn't one to stand still for long, but after sharing the history of his company, he paused for a moment while walking through the lab, looking around at the state-of-the-art equipment, his employees in their bright blue uniforms working busily at their stations. At Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab, technicians work on crowns and bridges. They do veneer work, implants and cosmetics.
"In the early '90s, people became really conscious of how white and straight they want their teeth, which is great for our business," Paul said.
The industry has seen a lot of changes over the years. The first thing Paul noted as he gave a brisk tour of the lab are new Federal Drug Administration regulations that require strict computerized tracking of what employees worked on what orders.
Next, as he walked through each department - model, wax, metal, ceramics, CAD cam, and shipping and receiving - he gave a brief description of each section, always including details about the equipment used, underscoring the rapid changes in technology that dental labs fight to keep up with.
Take, for example, the laser welder, which he likes to call his new suburban, since that's about how much it costs. The machine allows technicians to fix pieces that previously had to be thrown out.
"We're so dependent on this," Paul said.
Then there's the computerized pneumatic press for creating accurate ceramic restorations. The first press he bought in 1995 could do only half as much as the new ones, and it cost twice as much, Paul said, shaking his head, before rushing to the next stop on the tour: the design center.
Models used to be shipped out for design. Now, it's all done via computer, with 3D imaging allowing technicians to virtually manipulate the dental piece.
The company sends work to seven states. There are about 14,000 labs in the United States, Paul estimated, and he figures Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab is among the top 10 percent in size and technology. Most are one- to two-person labs, which are getting harder and harder to operate as technology progresses.
"It's almost like whatever you can dream, they can make happen in time - and if you have enough money you can buy it," he said.
The next step to keep the lab moving forward is removable prosthetics - dentures. In January, the lab will open the new department. First, they'll need to install new electrical services, remodel to make room for the new equipment and train the employees.
To keep the technicians up-to-date on all the changes in the industry, an instructor visits the lab three days a week to provide on-going training. Of all their employees, only four didn't start their training at Jackson-Fairmont Dental Lab.
The work requires good hand-eye coordination. A dexterity test determines if a person has the skills to physically perform the job, but personality is important too. Basically, they aim to hire talented, nice people who can get along well with others and love to learn, and they've succeeded in putting together a great team, Paul said.
Looking back on the lab's progression, "It's just blossomed," said Karen, speaking affectionately of Paul's enthusiasm for everything he does. "A lot has to do with the employees, and the things he does, his rapport with the dentists and the quality he wants to achieve."